Ankara Mayor Becomes Unlikely Rebel in Showdown With Erdogan

Updated on
  • Melih Gokcek has so far resisted president’s calls to resign
  • Erdogan shaking up party after declaring ‘fatigue’ in ranks

Longtime Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek is resisting pressure to resign, fashioning himself into an unlikely rebel as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turns a sweeping purge of Turkish society against his own party.

Melih Gokcek

Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Gokcek, who’s been elected to the post in five consecutive elections since 1994, has been under pressure to step down since early this month, when Turkish media began to report speculation that he would go. His resignation seemed imminent when he met Erdogan at the presidential palace late on Oct. 5. But the mayor emerged from that meeting with his job, and later sent tweets saying he’d discussed a museum and other projects with the president.

Gokcek’s refusal to abide by calls to quit from Erdogan, who has ruled by decree under emergency law since last year’s coup attempt, is a risky move that could see him forcibly removed from office, or facing an investigation. Pro-government media that once supported the mayor have turned against him, publishing stories hinting at corruption and connections to the group the government blames for the failed putsch.

Erdogan warned Oct. 19 that resistance by mayors would yield “severe” consequences. “I don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

Turkey’s Power Struggles Stem From Erdogan’s Grip: QuickTake

Disregarding Voters

There’s also a risk for Erdogan of alienating supporters, turning powerful allies against him and tarnishing his own party with allegations of graft and a disregard for voters. While Gokcek is one of Turkey’s most divisive politicians, some 1.4 million people cast votes for him at the last local election in 2014, which he narrowly won against a nationalist candidate run by the main opposition party. The next local ballot, in March 2019, will be seen as an important bellwether for Erdogan’s chances at re-election six months later.

Erdogan has probably seen polls showing “that some of these mayors are losing popularity,” said Mert Yildiz, a former economist for Roubini Global Economics who works as an independent consultant for municipalities. “Erdogan is thinking ahead, and he’s saying, ‘I don’t want to lose these cities so I need to get rid of these guys.”’

Gokcek’s Followers

Gokcek has a Twitter following of more than 4 million and an affinity for insult matches and wild conspiracy theories. Earlier this year, he organized a trip for reporters from top U.S. media organizations promising that they’d meet Turkish officials including Erdogan. Instead, he brought the visitors to a complex in Ankara, showed them a gruesome film depicting injuries and deaths from the night of the coup, and shared his views on issues including the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, which he says was triggered by Israel and the U.S.

Yeni Akit TV, a pro-Erdogan Islamic news outlet, has recently accused Gokcek of colluding with the main opposition party, the CHP, which the mayor himself has linked to the Gulen religious movement that Erdogan’s party says masterminded the coup. A spokesperson and an adviser for Gokcek didn’t respond to requests for comment over the weekend.

The government refers to Gulen’s following by the abbreviation “FETO.” Allegations of being linked to the group, if taken up by a prosecutor, are a certain career-ender for politicians in Turkey, if not also a ticket to jail. More than 150,000 people have been fired, jailed or detained since the coup attempt.

Erdogan’s insistence that Gokcek step down is part of a larger shake-up he triggered after returning to the ruling party and declaring that “fatigue” had set in within its ranks. Last month, Kadir Topbas, the mayor of Istanbul since 2004, was the first of four mayors to step down. Saban Disli, a founder of the ruling AK party whose brother is in prison for allegedly being a coup-attempt ring leader, resigned Thursday as an adviser to Erdogan. Recep Altepe, mayor of Bursa, Turkey’s fourth-largest city, resigned at a press conference on Monday, saying he wouldn’t clash with Erdogan, his party’s leader.

2019 Elections

Dozens of elected mayors in the nation’s southeast have already been replaced with so-called kayyums, or trustees, appointed by the central government. Most of those mayors were members of a pro-Kurdish party and many have since been charged with terrorism. Erdogan also spearheaded a move to strip the party’s parliament members of their immunity and to send its leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, to prison. They’ve been jailed for almost a year.

In an interview with the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper published on Monday, Hayati Yazici, a former government minister who’s now deputy chairman of the ruling party, acknowledged that forcing mayors out of office was an “exception” to the party’s commitment to letting voters decide on changes of power.

“We’re still committed to this principle,” Yazici said. “But like in everything, there can be exceptions. We see this as an exception to the principle.”

The showdown leaves Erdogan in a difficult spot as he prepares for 2019, according to Yildiz. The referendum in April, in which voters ultimately approved a series of constitutional amendments to hand Erdogan more power, showed that the ruling party is losing urban support. All of Turkey’s largest metropolitan areas, including Istanbul and Ankara, voted against.

“Erdogan has the kayyum card, he can appoint a kayyum” to replace Gokcek, Yildiz said. “The other card is the investigation card for FETO, and Gokcek in the past has sent lots of tweets in support of Gulen, so it’s easy. But he doesn’t want to use either on his own guys.”

— With assistance by Selcan Hacaoglu

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